Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Thursday, Jun 17, 2010
Leone stands as one of the movie's most influential practitioners. He took the standard language in one of the art form's most important genres and redefined it in a way that brought new insight and importance to all aspects of film.

He was born into the belly of Italian show business: his father a famed director (Roberto Roberti), his mother a certified star (Bice Waleran). By the time he was a teenager, he was very familiar with film, and took several jobs on Hollywood and homeland period productions. While helping out on the peplum epic The Last Days of Pompeii, he was forced to fill in for Mario Bonnard when the filmmaker grew ill. Suddenly, he was behind the lens, and it would be a place he’d remain for the rest of his career. Oddly enough, he only made nine credited films, but for fans of the spaghetti Western - a showy subgenre that brought grit and gravitas to the sagging cinematic staple - four of his films would remain major motion picture milestones.

Indeed, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West would both revolutionize and reign in the format’s filmic impact. They become the beginning and the end of the sagebrush switch-up. But there was more to Sergio Leone than squinting antiheroes and one-horse towns draped in quick-draw bloodshed. He was first and foremost a man of extraordinary vision, as illustrated all throughout the sensational Blu-ray box set named after his most iconic character - The Man With No Name.

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Tuesday, Jun 15, 2010
The way in which wrongs are rights, rights are wronged, and all the permutations in between are approached makes the Vengeance Trilogy a classic of its own design.

Revenge isn’t always about righting wrongs. Sometimes, it’s about wrongly feeling right. It could also stem from the right to be wrong, and of course, there’s the rare instance where how you were wronged was right all along. In fact, if you boil the spirit of vengeance down into its two main components, the inherent sense of motivational entitlement (right) is almost irretrievably linked to acts or actions viewed either objectively or subjectively as unjust, unfair, or in direct conflict with another’s sense of privilege (wrong).  As part of his brilliant dissection of all things payback, Korean director Park Chan-wook created three amazing movies - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) - that, today, stand as the last word on retribution. But even more than that, the filmmaker flushes out all aspects of reckoning, discovering the various permutation and possibilities that come when someone feels slighted and demands recompense.

Unlike the characteristic American take on the thriller, which typically sets up very clear heroes and villains, Park’s Vengeance Trilogy (now available in beautiful Blu-ray editions from Tartan Video), paints its character portraits in facets of ambiguity and complication. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a deaf man named Ryu kidnaps a young girl, hoping to use the ransom money to pay for his sister’s operation When the victim dies accidentally, her father Dong-jin goes after the people responsible. With Oldboy, a seemingly innocuous man named Dae-su is locked up in a dingy hotel room like prison for 15 years. When finally released, he plots against the man who put him there. Finally, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has Lee Geum-ja taking the wrap for the real murderer in a high profile case. The resulting jail term, and national notoriety, lead the lady to return to society with one goal in mind - destroy the man who destroyed her life.

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Monday, Jun 7, 2010
Do we marvel as the man responsible for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino works a similar artist magic on material that many would consider exploitative schlock? You betcha.

The typical definition of insanity is one’s failure to fully grasp reality. Put another way, the clinically deranged cannot fathom the crystal clear differences between our world and the fantasy land swirling around their swollen psyche. Perhaps this is why the realm of the unhinged has been so ripe for cinematic exploration. From actual case histories to wild, made-up manias, Hollywood loves to dabble in the lunatic fringe -with frequently uneven results. But when Martin Scorsese decided to deliver a horrific Hitchcock homage based on Dennis Lehane’s literary thriller Shutter Island, few could have imagined the masterpiece he’d create. Though he’s an American treasure, one of our greatest living filmmakers…blah, blah, blah - he is still trudging through tenuous territory.

Now comes the amazing Blu-ray of the 2010 hit, a gorgeous transfer teaching us that, sometimes, style and pure filmmaking flare can occasionally substitute for sense, sensibility, and sporadic lapses in plot logic. Does everything match up successfully once the last act “twist” is revealed? Not really. Do we marvel as the man responsible for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino works a similar artist magic on material that many would consider exploitative schlock? You betcha, and the main reason is obvious almost from the first frame: Scorsese has decided to act just as nuts as the characters the narrative centers around. When he isn’t cribbing from the Master of Suspense and decades of post-modern noir, he’s utilizing a gonzo like approach that almost redefines our impression of the director.

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Saturday, Jun 5, 2010
This time around, we look at Django, Dark Nature, Darkman, Flash Gordon, and Carlito's Way

The high definition home video technology known as Blu-ray is in an unusual place in 2010. Unlike laserdisc, which failed to fulfill the promise of its expanded aesthetic discussion and preservationist intent (cost kept it from dethroning crappier, more commercial king VHS), it has held steady with its digital sidekick, DVD. There have even been cases when specific titles (The Dark Knight, Avatar) clearly outsell - and outclass - their non-Blu brethren and with 3D advancements looking to make their mark, the format is in a very strange holding pattern. Almost all swear by its improved sound and vision, but some studios aren’t willing to invest in the labor-intensive remastering of their movies (which kind of defeats the purpose). So they simply toss out the previous incarnation of a film and hope that the majority of the buyers pay little or no attention to the lack of an update. Most don’t.

There are some studios who are trying to keep everyone happy. Disney regularly releases its latest animated efforts in complex combination packages that give both Blu-ray and DVD aficionados something to crow about, and Warner Brothers began a program where you can take your old out of date discs and port them over to the new technology. Universal is even testing the double format idea, releasing a bunch of notable efforts via an intriguing two-side ideal. Again, if the image is not improved and the extras aren’t plentiful, there’s really no reason for the re-release. Still, looking over the five titles featured in this second installment of our semi-regular Blu-ray overview, you can see that some distributors are trying their best to buoy sales and maintain a level of consumer confidence. On the other hand, they have to deal with the often uneventful movies as part of the presentation.  Let’s begin with:

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Tuesday, Jun 1, 2010
Unlike the theatrical version, which got to the action almost immediately, the new unrated version takes its own sweet time before unleashing the terror - and that's not necessarily a good thing.

It’s an interesting question for a critic to contemplate. Does the creation of a “director’s” cut of a film - a version heretofore unseen by any member of the moviegoing public - improve one’s original opinion, or simply cement it further. Said another way, does adding back in MPAA-excised gore, a couple of intriguing subplots, and a few moments of character complexity, turn a dud into something dynamite? This is a difficulty fans of the Joe Johnston reinvention of The Wolfman will have to answer. From the outside, the nearly 12 minutes of added footage does change things. We get more of our hero’s reluctance to return to his childhood home, a chance encounter cameo on a train, and a growing unease at being intertwined with his family, and his father, once again. Unlike the theatrical version, which got to the action almost immediately, the new unrated version takes its own sweet time before unleashing the terror - and that’s not necessarily a good thing. 

Initially, it’s all there: the gloomy Victorian England setting; the decrepit Gothic family manor; the faux religion and ancient gypsy curse; the mark of the beast; the town filled with superstitious residents; and the bloody, vivisected corpses strewn along the countryside. Even the make-up by veteran F/X wizard Rick Baker is sufficiently post-modern while instantly recalling the look and feel of the classic Universal beast. Everything is in place for a throat-ripping, blood-spewing good time, and for a while at least, the 2010 version of The Wolfman delivers. But there is also a reverence here (one accented by the new home video release), a devotion to the past and all things retro that undermines the energy and the effectiveness of what director Joe Johnston and star Benicio del Toro want to bring to this terror update. Instead of fear, we get fanciness - and now, much more of same.

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